What is the “living water” that Jesus was talking about in John 4?

January 14, 2012
By dreiher2

Pardon the long post. I tried to keep it short. Most people believe the “living water” that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman somehow figuratively refers to the Holy Spirit, or else to Salvation in a broad sense which satisfies her spiritual thirst. This is how it is traditionally explained. However, I think that all of these miss the main point. The point is not that unbelievers need to be satisfied, but that God needs to be satisfied. In other words, we need to satisfy God’s ONE requirement, that is, to believe in Jesus to get eternal life.

Let’s step back a second. John 20:31 states that the 8 signs in John were recorded to point people to believe in Jesus as the “Christ.” The final sign usually completely ignored as a sign, was the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. This 8th sign is the most effective evangelistic tool we have today, to get unbelievers to the tipping point where they believe in Jesus for eternal life. When we combine Jesus’ offer of eternal life, with what He did on the cross to pay for our sin and offer eternal life to us without cost, since He paid for it all, we have  a POWERFUL tool! Since John 20:31 indicates that the signs were written to unbelievers so that they “believe Jesus is the Christ,” we need to look at how John defines “believe in Jesus as the Christ.” I think we see a clear Johanine confession of what it means to believe in Jesus as the Christ in John 11. Jesus tells Martha “he who lives and believes in me will never die. do you believe this?” (11:26). Then Martha replies, “Yes Lord, I believe that You are the Christ.” To believe that Jesus is the Christ is to believe that “he who lives and believes in Jesus will never die.”  The key is believing in Jesus as the granter and guarantor of eternal life while you are still alive, in other words, being persuaded, or being convinced of the saving proposition, the promise of eternal life Jesus makes over and over again in John. Some Evangelicals object with a statement like  “just believing the facts is not enough.” They think we are talking about believing that Jesus is His first name, and Christ is His last name, and thus if they know his name it is like a key that unlocks eternal life. They might think we are saying that all a person has to do is believe that Jesus is the Son of God, or believe in Him in some nebulous way, or even believe in Him to forgive our sins. Is this what John 20:31 is talking about believing?

No. In the first 3 chapters of John, we see John painting an increasingly full  picture of the person and work of Christ, and how believing in Him (i.e. being persuaded that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God) immediately, and irreversibly causes a person to be born again both back then as well as today. This saving message never changed. After the Cross, this “belief” is based upon  sins ALREADY being taken care of, rather than covered and later taken care of. In both the past and today, our good works and sins have nothing to do with whether we go to heaven or hell. (John 1:29, 1 John 2:2, 2 Cor 5:19). We see the theme of  believing in Jesus for life over and over again throughout the book of John. It is more than just believing that Jesus existed, or that he was the Son of God, or that He forgives sin. In my previous post on Salvation in the Old Testament, I mentioned that Nicodemus, as an OT teacher, should have realized that a person needed God’s kind of life, eternal life, and that one had to believe in the coming Messiah for it. How else could God fulfill His Messianic prophesies to Abraham and David regarding the coming Kingdom? Jesus chided him for not knowing this. In other words, Nicodemus (and all the “teachers” of the law) should have recognized that if Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and subsequently had been convinced of the fact that He was the One who would grant this “life from above,” or “eternal life” they would have that life. Anyone who believed this would at that moment receive  everlasting life! Nicodemus seemed to get it later on. There is no clear text indicating the exact time he believed. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Nicodemus or anyone else to bump into Jesus while He ministered back then.  I think anyone open at all to the truth would not only hear, but see Him, and be convinced. Then and now, to believe in Jesus as the Christ, was to believe in Him as the Messiah, the Christ, prophesied in the Old Testament. To believe in Him was to receive the kind of life from above (being born again) needed to live with God forever in the Kingdom.

Jumping back to John 4. Jesus offers the woman living water, which will satisfy thirst, once and for all, but the effect is far more than quenching some kind of spiritual thirst. It is definitely NOT drinking over and over again to keep the thirst quenched. The woman understood this permanence of “drinking” ONCE and never again. She also saw it was irrevocable. There were no stipulations or provisos for keeping the living water. Additionally, this “drinking” is referring to something figuratively, believing, and not to merely a single drink of some kind of literal water. The moment a person drank, “believed” that Jesus was the Christ (drank), this “water” would then “spring up” into eternal life in that person. Believing in Jesus’ promise is what brings eternal life. Not just believing in the existence of Jesus, or only believing that He died on the cross for you. Almost everyone raised by Christian parents believes that Jesus died on the cross for their sin. However that does not get a person eternal life.

Why did Jesus talk about a figurative “living water” with the woman? Was he misleading her? Professor Zane Hodges (who taught Greek and NT at Dallas Theological Seminary for 27 years) referred to this technique that Jesus used as “Precluded pre-understanding.” By this he meant, that on several occasions, Jesus would make a statement that he knew would be misunderstood by the hearer, to make the person open up to receiving further truth. Very often it involved using figurative language. You can probably see this time and time again your self, and I don’t have time to go through all of them here. One example is in John 3 where we see Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus where He told him that a person needed to be “born again.”

Back to Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman about “living water.” Everyone agrees the living water that Jesus offered was not literal water. An important hermeneutical principle for those of us who believe in “plain literal interpretation” is that ALL scripture is to be interpreted literally. Some scriptures require us to look at the plain literal meaning, and some of them require us to look at the “figurative literal” meaning. There is always a LITERAL meaning. This literal meaning is directly linked to the single meaning the author intended us to understand in context. Sometimes a single literal meaning is conveyed with plain language – “no one comes to the Father but through me (John 14:16), and sometimes the literal meaning is conveyed with figurative language – “I am the door” (John 10:9). Several elements clearly point to the literal meaning behind the figurative term for “drink.” Look at how often the word “believe” occurs in John, almost 100 times. It is no surprise we see figurative language used in John referring to the act of belief.

The Samaritan woman exercised a common tactic when being evangelized, of veering off into a religious discussion when a person starts to get the point. She spoke of worship and what the Messiah will be like when He comes. She observed, “I perceive that you are a prophet,” and “WHEN Messiah comes He will tell us all things.” Jesus moved her quickly back toward the place where she could believe the saving message that, “I who speak to you am He.”  Jesus moved her closer to the point of belief (drinking) by telling her about her 5 husbands, and current illicit relationship. She was almost convinced. In fact, she might have been born again at the moment she believed what Jesus said, “I who speak to you am He.” After all, one single moment of persuasion (belief) is all that is necessary to be born again. Permanently. Simple, childlike, persuasion. No Repentance. No Baptism. No list of facts to believe or things to do. No giving of money. No obedience. No Commitment. No perseverance of faith and good works. Just one simple moment of being convinced of who Jesus was and what He offers.

Another thing about this “living” water. The text here says, this water He gives a person who asks for it, when drunk, will springing up into eternal life. The living water is not eternal life. Drinking the living water produces eternal life when believed. I hope you see the difference. I think we have been brainwashed to ignore what the text really says here. Go ahead and read John 4:14 for yourself and decide for yourself.

Let me observe a side note on John 7. Later on in John 7:37-39, we see Jesus discussing “living water.” However, in this passage it speaks about something that will happen in the future for those who drink once. It is different than what John is talking about in chapter 4. I think John is assuming the occurrence of the one time belief, John 4, however, in John 7, those who drink once, will have something happen in the future, at Pentecost, namely receive the Holy Spirit which would flow from their hearts to other people. This did not happen to the Samaritan woman and those who believed in Jesus before Pentecost. Note that in John 4 we have the water itself springing up into eternal life, whereas in John 7 we have water flowing out of the heart to those around us. Most agree this is referring to the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers after Pentecost. The point is, you get eternal life the same way before Pentecost and after Pentecost, by drinking once. This drinking figuratively is referring to believing in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, as the granter and guarantor of  eternal life. What happens after that is different now that the Holy Spirit permanently indwells believers. I think that this living water flowing out of ones heart in John 7 is talking about evangelism, that is, telling others about the saving message, and not some subjective thing such as overflowing joy or something like that. Look at all of the people that believed in Jesus as Messiah in Acts 2:40-46. Check it out for yourself.

I think that from my study of John 4 and 7, that the living water is indeed the Biblical TRUTH or PROPOSITION that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, who gives God’s kind of life, necessary to live forever with Him. The moment a person believes that proposition about Him (in other words are 100% convinced or persuaded) then immediately this truth “springs up” into eternal life. In turn, this “living water” (i.e. this “saving message” or “saving proposition”) can be passed on to others, who can in turn believe it too, and have eternal life spring up inside of them too, as we see happening in the town where the woman returned to.

Zane Hodges referred to this water as “Water producing Water.” I think that is a great way to understand what is going on in John 4. The living water is not equivalent to Salvation, or being satisfied in some subjective sense. It is not equivalent to the Holy Spirit, although it can be said from John 7 that in the future, we can refer to the Holy Spirit as the agent that will cause “streams” of living water to flow from the heart. However, the living water has to get there first to be able to flow out. It gets there by a one time act of believing in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, who is the granter and guarantor of eternal life!

For those who are interested in watching a presentation much better than mine, here is Prof Hodges’ message,  Water producing Water.

It is about 33 minutes long with the Q&A time.

- Don Reiher


One Response to What is the “living water” that Jesus was talking about in John 4?

  1. diane on June 10, 2013 at 5:46 am

    Thank you Don. Another great article. I especially love this one because we’re going through John in our Ladies Discipleship class, and we’re at John 4…. the Samaritan Woman. It’s one of my favorite passages in all of scripture because it’s so clear that by taking just ONE DRINK you will NEVER THIRST AGAIN. No loosing your eternal salvation. Loved your post. Thanks so much.

    P.S. You have so much good teaching on your blog here that it’s going to take me a while to digest it all. But I’m so glad it’s here for digesting~!!!

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